Truth be told, Harry Caray couldn’t really carry a tune, either, even if “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” would become his signature song. That’s why Bill Veeck, the late owner of the White Sox, thought it was perfect for him — What fan would be afraid to sing along with Harry? — and why the Cubs knew it would be a hit in Wrigley Field, too, when Harry switched to Chicago’s North Side.
So there really was no need for Jon Sciambi, even as he leaned out of the upper-deck booth during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley and held a mic out to the waiting throngs below, to offer a semi-apology.
“Just because I can announce,’’ Sciambi said on the air as he awaited his musical cue, “doesn’t mean I can sing.’’
“I was literally calling the last out and taking my headset off with the mic in my hand, ’’ Sciambi said. “I was like, ‘This is going to be terrible.' ’’
By the time he gamely muddled through his off-key rendition (not that the well-lubricated crowds at Wrigley would have noticed), what sounded like a chorus of boos ricocheted off the ivy-covered walls.
But a closer listen revealed the crowd was actually delivering an appreciative “Booooooogggg” back at the stocky redhead as he put his headset back on, settled into his seat and resumed describing to the viewers at home what was taking place on the field below.
For anyone still wondering whether this newcomer to the Cubs TV booth had connected with his audience in his first few months on the job, this rite of passage offered a pretty persuasive clue. Not only in the ballpark, but in the living rooms and bar rooms of Chicago and beyond, Cubs fans have welcomed Jon “Boog” Sciambi as one of their own.
For Sciambi, that is the equivalent of running up the white “W” banner up the Wrigley Field flagpole.
“Even at a reduced size, I’m not a small man,’’ he said, “and I’ve got the red hair. I would say that I’m easily seeable. I’ve had great interactions. Obviously, around the ballpark, and then around downtown. Yeah, I definitely get recognized.’’
A veteran broadcaster who had a national following from his work on ESPN, both TV and radio, Sciambi elected to go local again when he replaced old friend Len Kasper in the Cubs’ booth on Marquee Sports Network.
“That's the question I get the most,’’ said Sciambi, who previously had done play-by-play for the Marlins and Braves before going to ESPN full time in 2010 to do baseball and college basketball. “’So you really wanted to go back to doing a team?’ I was interested in going back and doing the Cubs, yeah.
“You're talking about one of the most significant franchises in sports. And that’s the reality of it, you sit there and look at it, it's the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Cubs, the Cardinals, the Red Sox. The Giants? I don't know, but when you're talking about all of pro sports, you know the Chicago Cubs are one of the most significant out there. It’s a city I’ve been coming to for 25 years and you’re talking about a fan base that has a lot of passion for the sport and I love that.’’
This idea of talking sports for a living took root at Boston College, where Sciambi, a transfer from William and Mary, was a regular on the campus radio station, WZBC. What might have seemed like typical dorm-room discussions among opinionated student sports fanatics actually turned out to be a fertile training ground for broadcasting stars: At BC, Sciambi shared air time with Joe Tessitore, who became one of ESPN’s most prominent voices, and Bob Wischusen, the radio voice of the New York Jets since 2002 who also does basketball and football at ESPN.
Sciambi and Wischusen both wound up after school in south Florida, doing sports talk shows on Miami’s WQAM. But by then, Sciambi already had an eye on baseball play-by-play. The cliché of the kid sitting in the stands with a recorder, calling a game as if thousands were listening? That was Boog. Except this was not fantasy baseball for him. WQAM was the flagship station of the Marlins at the time, and Sciambi approached one of the team’s broadcasters, Dave O’Brien, and asked if he’d listen to one of his tapes.
“We sit down in the lunch room,’’ O’Brien recalls. “’What do you think?’ he asks. I told him, ‘To be completely honest, I thought it was going to suck. But you know what? It was pretty damn good.’ ’’
At 26, Sciambi had a nice gig in Miami, doing regular stints as a talk-show host. But he decided that wasn’t going to get him to the big leagues. He quit the station and took a job as a play-by-play man for the Angels’ short season Class-A team in Boise.
“I still can remember landing in Boise, Idaho, and standing there waiting for my [broadcast] partner, Rob Simpson, to come and pick me up, and as I'm waiting there, basically alone in the Boise airport, I was like, What the [expletive] did I just do?’’ Sciambi recalled.
“And I was bad to start. I was overwhelmed and the game was too fast, and yeah, I stunk. I’d gone across the country, I was there for two or three months, and I got $3,000, maybe. But I was certain after doing it that that’s what I wanted to do.’’
Sciambi turned that experience to his advantage, when he returned to south Florida and the Marlins hired him to work on their pregame and postgame shows and do in-game updates.
“Joe Angel and I would give him the occasional inning of play-by-play—usually when the Marlins were on the [West] Coast, so the boss wouldn’t hear,’’ O’Brien said.
“I take a father’s pride in him.’’
The Cubs’ job unexpectedly opened when Len Kasper, the team’s TV voice for 16 seasons, jumped crosstown to the White Sox. Sciambi not only was replacing someone who had built a loyal following, he was replacing one of his best friends in the business. They had worked together with the Marlins, Kasper on the TV side, Sciambi on the radio, before Kasper was hired by the Cubs in 2005.
When the White Sox visited Wrigley Field earlier this month, the Cubs honored Kasper with a video tribute.
“There was a moment here or there, I had trepidation, but Len is one of my closest friends. So, he was a good guide, I know how this works, I know the connection that fans feel with their guy, right. I’m replacing a guy in Len who is great and has been here for 16 years. That’s a lot for people to digest, right? They're just not going to like change, and I'm not going to be able to do anything but do it the way that is true to me, and hopefully deliver something good.
“So I can't control it. I was intent on not coming in and trying to be, ‘I know everything about this team, I know everything about the history of this franchise, I know everything about this city.’ I wasn't going to try and come off like an expert and I'm not going to try to come off like an expert on the history of the Chicago Cubs. That will be a gradual process, because it's a special franchise and it's a special city.’’
How much does it complicate things that his predecessor works in the same town?
“Not for me,’’ he said. “When I say we’re great friends, we’re great friends. If our games are earlier and I’m driving home, I put the radio on and I listen to him.
“I'm glad he's here. I get to see him more and we’re just more connected.’’
Upon arriving in Chicago, Sciambi inherited Kasper’s broadcast partner, Jim Deshaies, the former big league pitcher who worked nine seasons as Kasper’s color analyst, their easy banter making them an immensely likable pair. Sciambi, from his numerous trips to Chicago for ESPN, had gotten to know Deshaies, and on the air, at least, the comfort level is striking.
“I knew JD enough, and we had interacted enough, that I had an idea what he was about and what his sensibilities were,’’ Sciambi said. “I had watched a lot, and I knew how he came to the ballpark prepared. And the other part you can’t rule out is Len as the connection. Jim had a great connection with Len. I had a great connection with Len. So with Len saying to Jim, ‘You’re really going to like Boog,’ and him telling me, ‘You’re really going to like JD,’ that was sort of built in, and I also had a pretty good idea what it would be like.
“He’s got great energy, in a positive way. He’s smart. He’s funny. I don’t think either of us take each other too seriously. And on the baseball side, he’s always open to new information. We both like to laugh, I think we’re both interested in each other’s opinion on stuff, and we haven’t had a lot of these conversations before, so they’re energized and fresh.’’
Deshaies said from the outset, they clicked.
“I think right from the start, we did two games together in spring training from Arizona, and double-checked Twitter, not exactly scientific, but most of the commentary was really good,’’ Deshaies said. “Over the first few games of the regular season you saw a lot of, ‘I really miss Len but Boog is great, and great hire, Marquee, you hit it out of the park by hiring Boog.
“I think the fact he had a little cache from the national work he’s done, people were aware of him, if he had been just someone hired from another club in another city that people weren’t familiar with it would have been a big hurdle, even if person X had been really good, I think there would have been more pushback. But because people were familiar with Boog, had seen and heard him on ESPN and had a little bit of a reputation coming in, that helped, too.’’
After all he’s seen and heard, you really didn’t think Boog Sciambi would be all that worried about how he’d sound singing during the seventh-inning stretch, did you?
On that perfect afternoon, Sciambi had much bigger things on his mind. It was MLB’s first Lou Gehrig Day, which brought another level of awareness to ALS, a cause that is one of the driving passions of Sciambi’s life. In 2006, Tim Sheehy, who had grown up on Main Street on Roosevelt Island across the river from Manhattan, founded Project Main Street after he had been diagnosed with ALS. Sciambi, a close friend since the age of 7, was an early supporter, and remains devoted to Project Main Street, which provides financial support to low- and middle-income families faced with the enormous costs of caring for ALS patients.
Sheehy died in 2007. Sciambi spoke about his friend during pregame ceremonies. Throughout the park that day, there were ALS patients, their caretakers and family members and friends, all guests of the Cubs.
“It’s a start,’’ Sciambi said of MLB’s decision to make Gehrig Day an annual event. “It’s the beginning, right? The biggest thing is we get to do it again the next year and the year after that and the year after that. We’re honoring one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, but we also get to raise awareness about this disease.
“I want us to find a cure for ALS. But while we are where we are, you've got to raise money in both spaces. It can't be that once you get the disease we just forget about you and leave you behind. The average out of pocket costs for somebody that has ALS is $250,000.
“And as your condition declines, your mobility declines, your communication skills decline, your ability to stay connected declines. Your world gets smaller and smaller and smaller.
“The thing that was so wonderful about what the Cubs and Marquee did was you had all these ALS patients there and they felt so connected, for the first time in a while. Yes, let’s pour money into research, but there’s people living with this disease and we’ve got to help them, too.’’
That is a big part of the soundtrack of Boog Sciambi’s life. And as long as he is behind the mic, it is one that he will never allow to go unheard.